Tips for Incubating your Small Business Idea While Still Working Full-Time

Other times, they actually launch the business and run it on the side while still employed. They may continue to run it as a side business for a period of months or even years. Only later do they leave their jobs.

No matter how you do it, I’ve got 6 practical tips for starting a business while you’re still employed:

1. Consider Your Employer Your Banker

I am a huge fan of bootstrapping a business, i.e., using personal money to fund growth. One form of using personal funds is to set aside a portion of your salary to fund your business. That means you need to protect your funding source — your job — until you are ready to cut the cord.

Remain a productive employee. Also, make it a point to know your employer’s policies on moonlighting. You don’t want to find yourself out of work prematurely, because your employer caught wind of your new venture and disapproved.

Employers are all over the map on whether they support employees’ entrepreneurial side ventures. Some employers do. Others are vehemently opposed. Still others don’t mind as long as you are not competing with them and you are a good worker.

If your employer prohibits moonlighting, then you may have no choice but to keep your business percolating in the idea stage until you have saved enough money to pursue it on a full-time basis.

2. Write a Business Plan

Sure, much of your plan will turn out to be incorrect (same goes for most startup business plans). But it’s not the plan that’s important … it’s the planning .

You’ll need to think through issues such as how many sales you will need to become profitable; anticipated expenses; and staffing required. Writing a business plan forces you to address such issues. If it turns out that your business idea is not feasible, better to find out before you quit your day job.

3. Get your Spouse’s Buy-In

Your husband or wife needs to be committed to your startup. If it isn’t a shared dream, or if your spouse is resentful of the time you are spending away from family, you’re adding stress on your relationship.

Plus, a startup often takes some initial outlay of money for technical product development, business filings, marketing, a website, etc. And it may mean years of sacrifices until the business takes off. These are fundamental money matters that your spouse needs to agree on.

To secure buy-in from your spouse, talk frequently about your dream. Paint a picture in words. Get him or her involved, too. Nothing creates buy-in better than being actively involved in business decisions.

4. Choose the Right Business

If you are planning on running your business on the side for several months or years while still employed – it’s especially important to start the right kind of business. You’ll need a business where you can set your own hours. You may also need a business that allows you to hire outside service providers or contractors who are literally working on your business while you are at your job.

Here are some examples of businesses that can be operated on the side indefinitely for years, or eventually taken into full-time businesses:

  • Software development
  • Web design
  • Freelance writing
  • Online businesses
  • Graphics design
  • Consulting
  • eBay business
  • Event planner
  • Any hobby that you can turn into a business

5. Set Aside Dedicated Schedule for Your Startup

In my experience, the biggest challenge you will have during the incubation is sticking with it and finding the time. After the initial flush of giddy energy, it’s hard to stay motivated to build a business. It’s even harder when you are tired and stressed after a full day’s work.

Many entrepreneurs who have successfully started a side business do it by setting aside dedicated hours each day for their startup. I’ve known budding entrepreneurs speak about going home to “start the second shift.” That’s exactly how you have to think of it. Commit to spending X hours per weekday and/or on weekends on your business. Stick to a regular schedule – it makes it easier.

6. Turn Your Employer Into Your First Customer

Think of your employer as your first big sales target (assuming your product or service is relevant to your employer). Many a business has gotten off to a great start when the owner’s former employer became the first customer.

Securing a large customer early on gives your business credibility in the form of a referenceable customer. It also helps you ramp up sales and bring in the necessary cash flow early on.

That’s why it is so crucial to perform well on the job and maintain good relations with your employer throughout the incubation period. When you are ready to go out on your own, you’ll be glad to have your former employer’s support.

Now – off to your startup, and good luck!

Kick-Start Your Sales Team

Do you want to increase sales? Yes? Well, you’re not alone. In all likelihood, you’re limited by the amount of time you can spend finding, targeting, and building relationships with prospective customers. Give yourself – or your sales team – a boost by hiring a freelancer to do your legwork so you can connect with your customers.

You can start by making a list of all your current sales-related activities. Then, list all the things you’d like to do… if you just had the time. Chances are, a number of those tasks can be completed by an Elance provider.

To help spark your brainstorming session, here are just some of the ways a freelancer can support your sales team and help you grow your business:

Research your market.

Market research can help you understand and act on the dynamics of your local or global market, on market trends, and on customer satisfaction with the products and services in your area. In short, market research will help you understand who and where your customers are, and how to meet their needs. Before you devote critical resources to opening a new sales territory, expanding your services, or promoting a new product, make sure a market exists. What you “know” may or may not be supported by the data a skilled researcher can uncover.

Create a lead database.

A freelancer can help source partners or affiliates, drive traffic to your website, collect information from prospective clients, and research, identify, and pull together contact information for key decision-makers within your industry. Pass on a description of the criteria that make a prospect more likely to buy your products or services to help the provider prioritize your leads. Instead of searching for qualified potential customers, you’ll spend your valuable time making contact and building a new business relationship.

Hand-write thank you notes.

A personal touch goes a long way. That means more to you: A pre-printed form letter or a personalized hand-written follow-up or thank you note?

Create a winning presentation or proposal.

Whether you land a new client may hinge on the quality of your proposal. A provider who can help you communicate complex ideas using an effective presentation can make a difference. You provide the information – they’ll provide the presentation. Or, have a freelancer develop professional presentation and proposal templates that you can pour customer-specific data into.

Answer e-mails and calls.

If your marketing campaigns generate customer inquiries, someone must respond as soon as possible – and if it’s a phone call, someone must be there to answer it. But – should that person be you? A freelancer can field the initial queries, answering general questions and provide information based on the materials you provide. You can then follow up with hot prospects and provide detailed information where necessary.

Perform a competitive analysis.

To grow your sales, you need answers to questions like:

  • Who are my main competitors?
  • What are the similarities and differences between their products/services and mine?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of each of my competitors’ products and services?
  • How do their prices compare to mine?
  • How should I best plan to compete: Offer better quality services, lower prices, more support, and/or easier access to services?
  • What should I do to create a competitive advantage in my marketplace?

The answers to these questions will help you better understand how to promote and how to run your business. Experienced researchers use offline and online sources to help you define strategies and market positioning that help you stand out from the crowd.

Show Your Customers You Care

Showing your customers that you care and value their business is more important now than ever. But how can you do this credibly, and genuinely? The key is to have a reason to communicate (other than just simple appreciation).

Read on for a few effective ways you can show your customers you care:

Say thanks.

An e-mail is good, but a hand-written card makes a much bigger impact. Add a personal touch: Reference a recent contract or project and if possible include a detail showing you know your customer on a professional and a personal basis. A pre-printed card with the message “Thank you for your business” carries little impact; what if you instead wrote:

“Dear Mary,

Thanks for awarding us your database project – we will once again make sure you are absolutely thrilled with our work. Please contact me directly if you have any questions or concerns… and I hope Mark and the kids are doing well!”

Stay simple and to the point, and if you don’t know anything personal about your customer, make finding out a few details a priority. How? Just ask: Most people are delighted to talk about their families and their interests. You don’t have to become best friends… but you can establish a rewarding personal connection that also creates a competitive advantage.

Ask for opinions and feedback.

But do so with a purpose. Don’t send out a generic survey that in effect asks, “How are we doing?” And avoid appearing to be going through the motions; if you do, your customers will go through the motions, too – and that’s if they respond at all.

Many people also use surveys to ask questions like, “What could we have done better on the last project?” The problem with that approach is it automatically calls to mind your failings rather than your successes. Plus, if you truly know your business, you should already know what you could have done better.

Instead, look for specific opinions and feedback that shows your customers you truly value the input they are uniquely able to give. Not only will you continue to build a business relationship, but you will probably get valuable insight into improvements you can make.

Another approach is to ask how you can help your customers provide better service to their customers. For example, your customer’s website visitors may have asked for a particular widget or for client-accessible web tools. The answers you get may create new opportunities for you to service your client.

No matter what you ask, be prepared to make changes based on the feedback you get. When you ask for the input you implicitly create the expectation that you will do something with that input.

Walk-in your clients’ shoes.

Looking out for your clients’ interests shows you care. But you don’t have to call or write to find out how they’re doing or what’s new with their business; you can periodically check their website or blog (and make comments to their posts), subscribe to their newsletter, or use a tool like Google Alerts to keep up.

Say you’re a web developer and you read an article that has nothing to do with programming but everything to do with a client’s business. Forward the article and simply say, “I came across this and immediately thought of you…”

Not only is it a great way to stay in touch, but it also gives you a reason to stay in touch… and to show your client you care about their success, and not just in a “What can they do for me?” sort-of way. Or say you receive a Google Alert that your client was quoted on an industry blog – write a quick email and congratulate them.

In short, look at the world from your clients’ perspective, and find useful ways to stay in touch and on their radar. You won’t have to ask for the business – they’ll automatically think of you.

Suggest and make helpful changes.

Improvements don’t have to be major; for example, call a client and ask if they would prefer to receive electronic rather than paper invoices. Ask if a different delivery schedule would help. Or ask if more – or less – frequent communication and status checks will help keep a project on track.

But don’t ask questions blindly. Take the time to be sure you understand the possible needs of your customer before you ask.

If you’ve recently implemented a new service, that’s also a great time to make contact. For example, if you’ve set up an online scheduling system, let your customers know! Stressing the benefits to your customers – because, really, they don’t care if the new system helps you better run your business – shows you’re committed to providing the best service you can. While you’re at it, consider running a promotion: Offer a discount to the first fifty people who schedule an appointment online, for example.

Above all, make it personal.

Which makes the bigger impact: The flowers you send your significant other out of the blue, “just because you care,” or the ones you send on an anniversary? Usually, an unexpected gesture creates the biggest impact.

Look for openings to learn more about your customers. If a customer says, “I won’t need the project complete for a couple of weeks… I’ll be on vacation next week…” use the opportunity to ask about their vacation. Jot down a few details, and next time you talk, ask how the vacation went.

In the end, showing you care takes time and effort – but that effort can pay off in long-term business relationships that survive and even thrive in uncertain economic times.